Alexander Flores | Plumas National Forest is the research hub for graduate student Alexander Flores who received the HSI and NextGen grant focusing on forest health.

USDA grants $9.5M to CSU Agricultural Research Institute

By Lann Nguyen, Jan. 23, 2024

Agriculture-focused students are being given the opportunity to work on projects and develop critical thinking skills that are pivotal for resumes and provide that edge for job seekers who are near graduation. The United States Department of Agriculture recently funded the NextGen grant through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture which funds the California State University Agricultural Research Institute.

The USDA funds competitive research grants in which it decides what the nation needs in terms of agricultural funding. Through communicating with its stakeholders, whether it’s businesses, companies or academics to get feedback on what they’re doing and what’s needed during a hearing session. During these meetings public input is welcomed through submissions of ideas and feedback.

First-generation and low-income college students are encouraged to take advantage of this NextGen grant in order to supplement the agriculture industry with people from all walks of life.

“Any individual institution may give their input, so they just kind of dig the pulse of the nation to see what they think, and this is one of the reasons they funded this and $9.5 million is generally unheard of in the size of grants with NIFA so it was decided that this was something that could energize the USDA,” said David Still, executive director of the California State University Agricultural Research Institute.

The grant is utilized by buying necessary equipment for the lab which aids in research like PCR sequencing, which is used to examine the prevalence of soil borne diseases in strawberry production. Southern California is one of the top producers of strawberry crops, so ensuring that small farmers as well as larger producers yield a healthy crop is crucial to the success of the market and safety of the product.

Some of the research consists of analyzing the plants from the strawberry fields testing for fungal pathogens that small farmers may not be aware of because they lack the resources, according to Daniel Hurt, graduate student in plant science at CPP.

Recipients of the grant receive 60% of the funding at the beginning and the rest once the research project is completed.

In order to cultivate the next generation of leaders of the food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences workforce, grants like this one will provide the necessary tools and resources to achieve a strong foundation for the future.

This “once in a generation” grant according to Still is aimed toward fostering California’s natural resources along with the food systems and bettering agricultural practices by providing students with the platform to succeed.

“The entire foundation of what research is, is critical thinking and applying a problem and trying to develop solutions that are evidence based to make that problem better,” said Still.

Through specialized research performed in a lab under close supervision, students can examine parts of crops including plants and soil with the proper equipment paid for by the grant. Along with a variety of workshops and meetings, students are encouraged to expand their knowledge with guidance.

“The big thing that we talk about in our workshops is how to communicate science to somebody who doesn’t have a science background, ” said Still. “That’s another level of critical thinking about really understanding the problem and boiling it down to its essence.”

Alexander Flores | Plumas National Forest is the research hub for graduate student Alexander Flores who received the HSI and NextGen grant focusing on forest health.

Still dreamed of being a scientist in grade school and throughout his life he was exposed to wildlife and conservation biology which led to him pursuing higher education in plant and food science. Now his focus is on helping the future leaders in the field excel through mentoring and running a lab at Cal Poly Pomona conducting research on plant science.

This grant provides money through scholarships to students in order to aid in the costs of living as well as funding the research being conducted to further excel in agricultural development and conservation.

Graduate student Alexander Flores has benefited from USDA grants since he was an undergraduate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is continuing at Sonoma State studying forest health.

The professional skills meetings are one of the defining factors helping Flores thrive with this scholarship.

Flores learned how to effectively present some of the more technical science in a way that is understandable to an audience that doesn’t have the same background knowledge.

The grant funds an annual meeting in Sacramento, California providing an opportunity to meet researchers from other universities which serves to better understand how individual research fits into the overall body of work that’s coming out of the California State University system, according to Flores.

Under the umbrella of Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture there are several fields of study ranging from plant science to urban agriculture that have expanded resources with the NextGen grant’s funding. At Cal Poly Pomona, San Luis Obispo the range of study expands to forestry due to the landscape.

“Forestry is a very fulfilling job,” said Flores. “You get to work with the land and the plants, but you also have a deeper connection beyond a scientific study when you’re working with the people who make a living out of these things. So in a way you’re very connected to the communities that are affected by your research. And I think that, especially in agriculture and forestry, it’s connected in a way that requires deeper caring.”

Connor Soderstrom, CPP graduate student in plant science, has worked in Still’s lab since summer of 2021 with the hopes of pursuing plant breeding in his career.

California, being at the center of the country’s agriculture, the forefront of the research, especially with climate change and the regulations toward the inputs that are used on crops, is a growing concern.

“Moving toward more sustainable practices starts by having a healthy seed stock that has resistance to different diseases,” said Soderstrom. “More drought tolerant plants start with the seeds, so plant leaders have an important job to not only meet the demands of the consumer, but also the farmer and of course, the plants themselves need to be healthy so it’s a really exciting field to be in.”

The NextGen grant ensures there are opportunities for future leaders in the agricultural sector to perform hands-on research that will directly benefit California.

“Eventually we won’t be able to grow any kind of crops or plants on the soil, so therefore we will have less food that we’re producing and less land that’s in rotation for crops,” said Hurt. “We sometimes forget where our food comes from, some think it’s from the grocery store, but we need to be able to understand that it comes from plants. People tend to forget that plants are in an organic system, they need soil to grow and there’s a lot more that’s involved in the soil besides rock and roots and dirt.”

To learn more about the NextGen grant, including how to apply visit the USDA website.

Feature image courtesy of Alexander Flores 

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